Joseph R.


October 12, 1999

Buchanan, The Good War,
and Ironclad Orthodoxies


The controversy over Patrick J. Buchanan’s A Republic, Not an Empire is most remarkable. One could expect a presidential candidate’s critics to use his words against him – “Oh, that mine enemy had written a book.” What is odd is the way Buchanan’s critics handle his disagreements with conventional history.

Good manners are not on display, and Buchanan’s very character, moral judgment, and right to speak are under inquisition. “How can he believe that? How can he say that?” howls the Greek chorus of leftists, liberals, and tame “conservatives.” They are baffled by any disagreement with their view of the One Good War.


In their disarray, they began yelling HITLER! Aside from the attempted intimidation, one suspects a certain intellectual dishonesty here. Perhaps these people believe their own propaganda, having lost track of the real Pat Buchanan and his views some time ago.

Buchanan allegedly wishes that Nazi Germany had won its wars. This hogwash goes, of course, to his supposed “anti-Semitism” and that goes to his being “right-wing.” The Right is the source of all evil: hate(!), ethnic animosity, nationalism, localism (always evil), insensitivity, fist-fights, guns, John Wayne movies, etc. – all leading straight to fascism. Even ideologically empty Republicans have to watch themselves.

This is nothing new. In the fifties, American disciples of the Marxist charlatan, Theodor Adorno, branded all critics of the New Deal (and socialism) potential fascists. The Birchers, with their laissez faire capitalism, constitutionalism, and funny views about Eisenhower, were “fascists.” Goldwater was a fascist. (Actually, Barry was that unstable Conservative mixture, a domestic libertarian and foreign warmonger.)

Once, Americans could criticize past wars without being demonized. Say a kind word for Robert E. Lee, these days, and you’re a monster plotting to restore slavery by Wednesday. Many Americans’ historical memory goes back all of two weeks. One expected more from opinion leaders and journalists.


The “pundits” have a vision of World War II and Buchanan has spoiled it. The actual history is inconvenient. World War I – and the 1919 “peace” – left European society physically and morally ruined, with renewed war looming. Bolsheviks began their “experiment” – proving that with enough hellbentness you can kill 20-some million of “your own people.” In Italy, Germany, and elsewhere fascist movements posed – believably, at first – as the bulwark against the Communist contagion. In Asia, Japanese ambition and fears led to confrontation with the United States, whose leaders insisted on an Open Door to the markets of Asia. Wars got under way. Britain and France committed themselves to Poland, which, nonetheless, went quite unsaved.

Americans wanted no part of it. Wilson had helped make the Versailles “peace” – but the American people repudiated his legacy in 1920. They didn’t want a rerun any time soon. Scholars and other writers took critical look at the First World War. Anti-interventionist feeling pervaded the country. This view of things – and not a desire to wear armbands, grow funny mustaches, and stage big parades – actuated the American antiwar forces of 1939-1941.

Buchanan remembers what conventional liberals and conservatives don’t: that a large American minority doubted St. Franklin’s judgment and were prepared to stay out the war until it came to us. Some “isolationists” would have been prepared to aid Britain if the Nazis had launched an actual invasion of the British Isles. After the Battle of Britain, the Germans couldn’t even make serious plans to cross the Channel, and after June 1941 they were knee-deep in Adolf’s Big Muddy in Russia.

Buchanan is right. At this time, Hitler did not threaten America. To say this is not the same as nominating the Fuehrer for the Nobel Peace Prize. Hitler was a first-rate monster, but the moral fine-tuning needed to justify crusading against him hand-in-hand with the Butcher Stalin wore many people out – and still does.

Buchanan’s views differ little from those of historian Charles A. Beard, widely regarded as a “progressive” until he dissented from FDR-worship. Beard’s alternative was “Continentalism”: the serious defense of the Western Hemisphere – enforcing the Monroe Doctrine rather than using it as a cynical backdrop to looting Latin America for New York bankers.


Allegedly, joining the bloodbath of World War II saved us, just barely. But the war’s institutional, moral, and constitutional costs undermined our whole way of life with unconstitutional precedents for presidential war-making, permanent controls, and bloated bureaucracies. The “isolationist” writer William Henry Chamberlin called intervention a “short-cut to fascism” and, in truth, the welfare-warfare state made great strides during the war. The Cold War – with its mobilization-in-permanence – nailed the new system down for 40 more years.

This is not about one man’s “eccentric” views about events long ago. Anything short of total belief in the received version of World War II – and the Big Government it enthroned – threatens the Establishment with a real debate, finally, about the purposes of American foreign policy. That is what drives the campaign against Buchanan’s frightful “heresies.”

Buchanan understands that World War I – and its inevitable sequel – are the key disasters of the blood-drenched 20th century. Career diplomatic George Kennan commented in 1951: "Yet, today, if one were offered the chance of having back again the Germany of 1913 – a Germany run by conservative but relatively moderate people, no Nazis and no Communists, a vigorous Germany, united and unoccupied, full of energy and confidence, able to play a part again in the balancing-off of Russian power in Europe – well, there would be objections to it from many quarters, and it wouldn't make everybody happy; but in many ways it wouldn't sound so bad, in comparison with our problems of today. Now, think what this means. When you tally up the total score of the two [world] wars, in terms of their ostensible objective, you find that if there has been any gain at all, it is pretty hard to discern."1

British Conservative historian Niall Ferguson comes to similar conclusions in his The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (1999). There he argues that had Britain stayed out of World War I, Bolshevism would never have triumphed in Russia, Hitler and his movement could never have come to power in Germany, and Britain would not have exhausted its substance and undermined its empire. Germany’s vague pre-war ambitions do not demonstrate a “plan” to launch an aggressive war for hegemony, and German planning, once the war was under way, was no more or less reprehensible than the Allies’ plans to carve up the Ottoman empire, seize German colonies, and break up Austria-Hungary. The difference is that the Allies got to carry out their plans.

The supposed “worse case” scenario is one in which the German Empire under Wilhelm I would have dominated much of European economically. This seems rather benign compared to the actual history that we got. Since a German-dominated European economic community is what we have now, Ferguson asks whether postponing that outcome for 80 years was worth the price paid. As for German hegemony being “authoritarian” and arbitrary, let him who finds the present European union without sin in those areas cast the first stone.

This brings us back to what made a clear-cut Allied victory possible: Woodrow Wilson’s interference, moral grandstanding, and commitment to the Open Door. The costs and consequences of American intervention in World War I are incalculable. Here again, Buchanan – like the Old Right – is on solid ground.

There is certainly room for honest discussion of these matters. Demonizing the skeptics may not be the most honest or productive approach. Interventionists are loathe to debate such questions. The One Good War is their best showcase for the glories – and necessity – of eternal world-meddling. If that can be questioned – in the slightest detail – their whole world-outlook bids fair to unravel.


Certain Congressmen are presently exercised that Bill the President spent untold taxpayer dollars on his African junket, where he apologized for slavery – quite possibly to descendants of the very African slave-dealers who helped supply the world market for several centuries. If apology is in the air, there are a few I would like to see. When will the Mongols, for one, apologize for the Great Plague which cut Europe’s population by one third to one half? When will Mr. Lincoln’s government apologize for those famous fires in Atlanta and Columbia – or were they as “accidental” and “unintended” as a stray NATO missile taking out a Bulgarian bridge? Several right-wing political parties in South Africa want to know when Mr. Tony Blair will apologize for the 27,000 Afrikaner women and children who died in British concentration camps during the Boer War? (I’m just passing this one along.) When will Uncle Sam say a world of apology, however brief, to those 220,000 Filipinos who had to die so he could bring Yankee school marms, modern sanitation, and good government to the islands? Just curious. And I haven’t even brought up those Koreans.

[1] See George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy 1900-1950, Mentor edition, p. 51.

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Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He is a part-time lecturer in History at the college level. You can read his recent essay, "The Cold War," on the Ludwig von Mises Institute Website. His column, "The Old Cause," appears each Tuesday on

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